Using the tools of biotechnology to advance Borlaug’s legacy

Keynote speech by Mark Lynas to the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative 2013 Technical Workshop, Hotel Taj Palace, New Delhi

20 August 2013, 8.30am

[as prepared – please check against delivery]

Ladies, gentlemen, distinguished delegates, honoured guests,

I particularly want to acknowledge Jeanie Borlaug, chair of BGRI and a champion of continuing her father’s legacy in food security… and her daughter and Dr Borlaug’s grand-daughter Julie Borlaug, who is not with us today but has been both an insipiration and a practical support to me in preparing these remarks.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Three weeks ago I was travelling in central Kenya, meeting smallholder farmers who were growing improved bananas using the tools of modern biotechnology. Their banana plantations were healthy because they had been able to obtain clean tissue culture plantlets from the agricultural research institute rather than transplanting disease-carrying suckers.

One of these farmers, who had just over an acre of land, and children to feed, told me, much to my surprise, that he had once met Dr Norman Borlaug. He had been on a Kenyan delegation to the World Food Prize some years ago, it turned out. His description of the event has stayed in my head ever since. Meeting Borlaug was “like meeting the President of the World”, he told me with a grin.

Well, Borlaug wasn’t president of the world of course. To my knowledge he wasn’t president of anything. And yet he achieved more in his lifetime to change the world for the better than any official world leader I can think of for at least the last half-century.

That is why the Kenyan smallholder farmer I met remembered meeting Borlaug as one of the greatest moments of his life. Because he had shaken hands with one of the greatest men who has ever lived.

And we heard similar very moving testimonials last night from farmers here in India for whom Norman Borlaug touched their lives and changed them for the better.

Now, generally I am sceptical of hagiographic tributes, but with Borlaug it would be difficult to exaggerate his positive impact. As M S Swaminathan has put it:

“There is a saying in the Gita that, from time to time, God appears on earth in disguise. When the world was in a serious food crisis one of the godly forms who appeared was Norman Borlaug.”

Unlike official world leaders, Borlaug achieved what he did not through formal political power, nor through lofty rhetoric delivered from high up on the world stage, but through rigorous science and sheer hard work.

Science in Borlaug’s case was meticulously crossing thousands upon thousands of different wheat plants, in order to breed new varieties with greater yields, dwarfing characteristics and higher ratio of grain to total biomass.

Science for him also meant living alone in the research station he established in Sonora in Mexico, sowing wheat out of season initially by hand with a hoe, with no electricity or clean water, and with a dying child in a hospital far away.

How many of us would have worked that hard and made those kinds of sacrifices, even if we had known in advance – as he could not possibly have done – that we would end up saving a billion lives?

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We are gathered here today, under the aegis of an international collaboration that bears his name, to continue Borlaug’s lifelong battle with wheat rust. Rust wiped out his family farm’s wheat when he was a boy, and rust was the reason Borlaug initially established the research station in Sonora.

As we all know, he and his colleagues succeeded eventually in defeating wheat stem rust for many decades, until the emergence of the resistant race Ug99 at the very end of the last century.

Although the progress of Ug99 has not been as dramatic as initially feared, susceptible wheat is still being grown all over the world, and forms a mainstay of humanity’s food supply today. A fifth of all our calories come from wheat, and the global harvest is nearly 700 million tonnes per year.

While European wheat growers keep stem rust at bay with liberal applications of fungicide, this is neither ecologically sustainable nor financially desirable over the longer term.

In south and east Asia, meanwhile, both of which produce more wheat than the whole of North America, most growers cannot afford or do not have access to fungicides.

Billions of people therefore depend on susceptible wheat varieties that are sitting ducks, waiting for an epidemic of Ug99 to be blown over on the winds from the Middle East and Africa.

I was given the mandate to talk today about ‘Using the tools of biotechnology to advance Borlaug’s legacy’, and I cannot imagine a more appropriate area where this applies than the question of tackling wheat stem rust.

Borlaug was an unusual revolutionary in that he didn’t want his revolution to stop with him. He was a lifelong advocate of innovation – and a staunch supporter of biotechnology as the promising new frontier for plant breeding.

You can see why. By today’s standards, Borlaug had to work blind, using guesswork, chance and a lengthy process of elimination with thousands upon thousands of wheat crosses to try to get just the right genetic combination.

Because this took so long with only one growing season per year, he established his now-famous shuttle approach between the Mexican highlands and lowlands, in research stations more than a thousand kilometres apart, to squeeze two harvests into each year.

Today the tools of molecular biology give plant scientists, if not quite 20:20 vision, a much greater insight into the genetic level of their work than even Borlaug could have imagined when he began his research in Mexico.

Breeders can now work at the molecular level of individual genes, potentially eliminating the problem of linkage drag and the need for multiple backcrossings to eliminate undesirable characteristics.

There’s not much good in finding a Ug99-resistant gene, for example, if you have to cultivate and eat basically Bronze Age grass in order to use it.

The two papers in the current edition of Science, identifying the specific Sr35 and Sr33 rust resistance genes, are therefore real landmarks because they mean that resistance can potentially be transferred very quickly into multiple commercial varieties.

Hence the very clear conclusion by the authors – that, to quote from one of the papers, these identfications “open the door to transgenic approaches to control this devastating pathogen”, not least because both genes can also likely be stacked together to confer durable resistance hopefully for many years to come.

These are natural resistance genes from wheat ancestors and early cultivars – but sooner or later the pool of genes may run out as the pathogen mutates again. The war against the evolution of new resistance can never be won for long and will require constant research and vigilance, as Borlaug himself urged.

In future therefore we may need scientists to synthesize artificial genes, hopefully based on increased future knowledge about how the fungus operates and how other plants naturally resist it.

As we heard yesterday, Borlaug himself long held a dream that scientists would be able to identify how rice resists fungal rust and then transfer the relevant genes into susceptible varieties of wheat.

Better still, there is even greater potential now that the wheat genome has been sequenced and substantially deciphered, dramatically expanding the genetic library that breeders can use in the future.

It is notable and admirable by the way that all this information was instantaneously made freely available on the web – this is a collaborative project using science for the benefit of all humanity.

I cannot imagine a better embodiment of Norman Borlaug’s philosophy than this successful joint effort.

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But unfortunately the progress of good science runs up against the hard rock of bad politics. As perhaps the world’s most political food crop, by virtue of its very nature in supplying our daily bread, wheat has so far been locked out of the biotechnology revolution.

Although many new wheats have been developed using recombinant DNA and even tested in field trials, not a single one has ever been made available to farmers – not because there was anything wrong with the new varieties, but solely because of the worldwide cloud of fear and superstition that surrounds the use of genetic engineering.

Thus, the most powerful tools offered by modern molecular biotechnology must seemingly be permanently discarded – not because of any rational assessment of risks and benefits – but because a tide of anti-science activism has drowned scientists and governments around the whole world in a tsunami of lies.

The recent international furore over the discovery of a few herbicide-tolerant wheat seedlings in the corner of a single field in Oregon showed how far mythological fears about GMOs bred from an anti-science agenda has captured the media mainstream.

The appropriate response to the Oregon fiasco should have been ‘who the hell cares?’, yet instead we saw a bizarre agricultural equivalent of a murder mystery begin to play out, while entire countries cancelled their wheat shipments.

Meanwhile, 800 million people are still malnourished through shortage of calories, GMO or otherwise, and no-one seems to care.

Make no mistake: this perverse pseudo-scientific debate is doing real damage in the world, to the lives and prospects of millions of people.

As Borlaug himself warned late in his life, after spending many of his declining years campaigning against the anti-biotech activists:

“If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.”

Although things have undoubtedly got worse in recent years with the rise of the anti-GM movement, it is perhaps reassuring in a way that Borlaug himself had to battle these same types of naysayers for every improvement in the Green Revolution.

As he remembered in his biography, there was massive opposition to bringing his high-yielding wheat into India in the mid 1960s:

“Because I was American-born and worked for the Rockefeller Foundation the communists claimed I was opening a back door to renewed foreign domination. Through my machinations, Mother India would be forever dependent on American fertilizer and pesticides.”

I have heard similar fears voiced by anti-GM activists around the world numerous times. The undercurrent here is a rather reactionary nationalism, that seeks to freeze entire countries in a state of underdevelopment and ignorance.

In Kenya I was personally accused in a public forum in Nairobi of leading a second wave of colonialism into Africa – even though I was sharing a podium with African scientists who had developed African GM versions of African crops.

‘Africa is not ready for these new technologies,’ the opponents would chorus, whilst chatting into their Chinese-made cellphones and posting regular status updates on the American website Facebook.

Some of the myths they spread are not just scientifically unfounded, but obscene and offensive. When I was in Tanzania a fortnight ago, an activist-trained farmer in the central region of Morogoro stood up and declared that GMO crops were an American plot designed to turn people sterile and turn male African children into homosexuals. I would have walked out, if the statement hadn’t been made in Swahili.

I looked into the funding of this group, by the way, and found that it draws large-scale support from European development charities whose mandate is to eradicate poverty. Instead, they are enforcing permanent poverty by ensuring that African farmers are denied the choice of whether to benefit from new technologies in agriculture.

Traditional is always best, they insist, even if the traditional seeds are racked with disease, decimated by drought, and yield barely a tenth of what modern varieties might do. Productivity matters most, don’t forget, for families who are fully dependent for their survival on what they themselves can grow.

I’ve never met a malnourished activist. Those who are short of food are the farmers themselves, trapped in an entirely organic and agro-ecological prison of rural poverty where they cannot afford fertiliser, irrigation or pesticides, let alone commercial seeds. Their children were emaciated and their futures were dim.

That well-fed Westerners promote the continuation of this situation for misconceived ideological reasons left me feeling almost physically sick. Seeing this desperate situation, and being able to do nothing about it, was one of the most difficult experiences of my life.

I wished in particular that Borlaug were still here with us. Without him we seem to be leaderless, trapped in a prison of political correctness where no-one seems to dare tell the truth about the reality on the ground.

Borlaug was a true leader, because he led by example not by giving orders, and he was prepared to learn from others until the end of his life. But bad leadership was also his key challenge, as it remains our key challenge today in advancing his legacy.

Here in India we have a moratorium on Bt brinjal, for example, not as a result of any scientific analysis or data, but because of a myopic decision made by a single very cynical and politically opportunist government minister.

Ironically for someone who professes to be guided by science in his separate concern about climate change, Jairam Ramesh failed to defend science in agriculture when called upon to do so and in my opinion thereby betrayed the very principles he is mandated to defend.

I don’t know whether he lacked courage or knowledge or both, but Ramesh’s decision has set back Indian progress in biotechnology potentially for many years. This has now led to the long charade of a Supreme Court panel deciding on the evidence of activists whether to accept the judgement of scientists, and providing yet another failure in the process.

This is all just fine for the activists, of course, because for them a permanent delay is as good as a formal prohibition. Like the tobacco lobby many years ago, fear, uncertainty and doubt are their main products.

We need leaders who stand up for science and for evidence-based policymaking, and are prepared to lead from the front, not the back – as did Agriculture minister Subramanian when welcoming Borlaug into India in 1964, in the teeth of opposition from traditionalists and the rest of the cabinet.

History shows Subramanian’s success of course, which saw India’s wheat harvest jump by 5 million tonnes in a single year. Had those with the leadership skills of Jairam Ramesh been in charge in 1964, the door would have been slammed in Borlaug’s face, there would have been no Green Revolution, and India might still be starving today.

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This is not to suggest that science is perfect, or that the only roadblocks come from short-sighted politicians and ideologically-motivated activists.

The scientific establishment has its own orthodoxies and rigidities, and Dr Borlaug battled against them often, with varying degrees of success. He frequently said that the top scientists were the key barriers to progress, because they are too invested in the way things have always been done, and too worried that new approaches will lose them influence and stature.

Science has failed to produce leaders of Borlaug’s calibre, who are determined to get past political roadblocks. Instead, I keep meeting scientists who are quietly frustrated, who continue with their laboratory work seemingly in psychological denial of the fact that in the current political and regulatory climate their new genetically improved crop varieties can never be grown outside the walls of a screenhouse or the high fences of a 24-hour-guarded field trial.

Today science is under assault, and the quiet life is no longer an option. As the researchers at IRRI have recently discovered with the vandalising of their Golden Rice project, if you don’t go to them, they will come to you.

The activists will use every weapon – fair means or foul, physically destroying research if necessary, locking up the courts, publishing propaganda in the press – to stop agricultural biotechnology.

Those scientists who work in this sector aren’t there by accident, or because of the high rates of pay, but because they believe in what they are doing. Plant breeders I meet are passionate about their work and its potential to benefit society. And yet society refuses to hear their message and researchers in turn seem unsure about how to respond.

As I know from the climate change arena, scientific training does not easily lead to victory in propaganda battles and the use of emotive language. The very skills which make a good scientist are a fundamental source of weakness in a debate with winners and losers.

It is time therefore to change the paradigm. Scientists must be clearer that the debate on GM is over, and that there is no meaningful discussion within the scientific community about the inherent safety of genetic engineering any more than there is about the reality of climate change.

Just as climate change deniers do, anti-GM activists will always find some who claim scientific credentials in order to battle against biotechnology. The onus is therefore on the community as a whole to organise and clearly communicate a consensus position – not just once, but repeatedly, as the field evolves.

We also need to somehow change a situation where those conducting perfectly safe transgenics work are shut away in Level II biosafety facilities as if they were developing germ warfare, and subject to regulations which threaten enormous fines and lengthy jail sentences if a single fragment of modified DNA ever leaves the laboratory under anything but the strictest conditions.

As Calestous Juma has argued, the entire framing of GM regulation as coming under the aegis of biosafety and biodiversity is wrong. This by the way is a former Chair of the Biodiversity Convetnion who says clearly that there is no inherent threat of GM crops to biodiversity, any more or any less than there is from any other cultivated species.

The issue is the agricultural system, not the genotype of the cultivar which is grown, and the actual data suggests that current-generation GM crops have been good for biodiversity – this particularly applies to Bt crops, which have reduced insecticide applications by 500 million kg since 1996.

We need to address the constant confusion between the genetic diversity and gene pool of cultivars on the one hand and the natural biodiversity of wild species on the other. Too many activist groups call themselves biodiversity campaigners when they do nothing but promote low-productivity agriculture which overall worsens biodiversity impacts through the inefficient use of land.

We also need to work much harder to break the erroneous public perception that biotechnology is somehow umbilically linked to chemical monoculture. This is actually the opposite of the truth – instead the trend we see is away from chemistry in crop protection towards biology in crop protection.

This means moving away from chemical sprays which kills non-target organisms and damage biodiversity, and towards biological traits like Bt which are highly pest-specific. Here the industry structure is itself at fault – I want to see biotech seeds being a truly disruptive technology to free farmers from the necessity to purchase chemical pesticides.

Most importantly, perhaps, we need to break out of the verbal and mental straitjacket of the ‘GMO’. It is now time to abolish the terms GM and GMO, and for the world to catch up with the scientific reality that there is no monolithic category of GM or non-GM plant breeding.

Instead, there are a whole spectrum of different ways for identifying, copying, editing, transferring, cloning and synthesizing genes which in turn utilise a variety of interrelated by very different ways of modifying the genome.

As has been repeatedly said for decades, everything we eat is genetically modified, and the only way to breed new varieties of crops is to modify genes by one approach or another.

For example, if the genes Sr33 and Sr35 are stacked into commercial varities of wheat, everyone will of course be asking: ‘But is it GMO’? The answer should of course be: it’s not the process that matters, but the characteristics of the plant you produce, because there’s absolutely no evidence that the modern techniques used to transfer genes are dangerous in any way.

At the moment in Europe and elsewhere you could end up with an identical genome, and yet the process for producing it would lead to either permanent regulatory limbo in the transgenic case or an immediate free pass in any other.

Now that scientists can so easily and quickly sequence genomes, they can prove that transgenic techniques working at the molecular level are far less disturbing to the genome than chemical mutagenesis, and also more benign than the major disruptions caused by what is now called traditional breeding.

So what is GMO? Is using a zinc finger nuclease, which targets a mutation to a specific gene guided by its nucleotide sequence, is that GMO? It isn’t called that now. Is polyploidization, doubling the number of chromosomes, GMO? That isn’t labeled GMO either.

Of specific interest to this meeting, is combining Sr33 and Sr35 genes into a single ‘cassette’ and inserting them into a wheat embryo – is that GMO? Yes it’s called GMO because we added a gene. But we’re talking about wheat genes being put into wheat, so why the big fuss?

You could do this conventionally too, but it would take years, you would have serious linkage drag, stacking the resistance genes would be next to impossible, and by the time you get the new varieties out there in 2024 or whenever the rust fungus would probably have already evolved a way around them.

This is why in my view scientists should insist to regulators and others that we move out of the simplistic GMO or non-GMO trench warfare.

How the plant is modified is not important. What’s important is what its properties are. If the plant is a familiar one, like wheat, and you added one trait, like a gene for a protein that isn’t toxic or allergenic, then the plant is merely the sum of what you started with and what you added, not some strange new frankencrop.

If we are to unlock the potential for modern molecular techniques to contribute fully to improving and protecting the wheat crop in particular, then we have to break out of the GMO prison.

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This matters today perhaps more than it ever did before. In the 1960s Norman Borlaug faced opposition from ecologists who argued that feeding a growing population was neither necessary nor desirable.

Better to let a few millions die now, went the argument from Pauh Ehrlich and Garrett Hardin, in order to stop the teeming masses breeding yet more millions in future and further growing the world population.

Morally repugant this may have been, but you still hear echoes of similar arguments being advanced in some circles today. And let’s not forget that Borlaug himself was extremely concerned about population growth – he may not have been a Malthusian, but he was no Cornucopian either.

He knew that just leaving everything to the market would be a recipe for failure, and that feeding a rapidly-growing population required dedicated and determined research over many years, combined with wider efforts to reduce population growth.

In his acceptance speech for the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug warned that the agricultural breakthroughs for which he was being honoured would only provide a brief window of respite from the challenge of providing food for a growing world population.

Thanks to the Green Revolution, that window stayed open longer than perhaps he anticipated – but today it may well be starting to close. Borlaug bought us 50 years, but what will we do now?

For wheat specifically, the rate of population growth has been nearly double the rate of yield improvement, and in some parts of the world yields have not just stagnated but declined.

Overall, according to the latest research, we need to increase total food production by at least 100% by the middle of this century. But the current rate of yield improvement across all major food crops will see us fall 50% short of this target.

India alone is going to have to feed 400 million more mouths in the next thirty or so years. A billion more people will join the population worldwide in the next 12 years alone. The fastest population growth rates correspond closely with the areas of the developing world that still endure the lowest rates of agricultural productivity.

Biotechnology is a necessary but not sufficient component of any global response to this challenge. Using biotechnology will not guarantee succcess, but refusing biotechnology may well guarantee failure.

And we know what failure looks like. It looks like those children I met two weeks ago in East Africa, whose family cassava crops are dying in the fields from viral diseases, while resistant and healthy cassava varieties are locked in the lab because they are demonized as GMO.

We celebrate Norman Borlaug today because for him, despite multiple setbacks and personal and professional challenges, failure was not an option. Plant breeders now need to reclaim some of this indomitable spirit for the battles that lie ahead, whether against wheat rust, anti-biotech denialists or backward-looking politicians.

Let’s therefore be clear:

If we are to win the battle for food security, we need our researchers to be free to use all the tools of modern science.

We need our farmers around the whole world to be free to choose which varieties of which crops they wish to grow.

And we need our policymakers and media to lead society away from the pervasive cloud of negative mythology and denialism that have held back agricultural progress in recent years.

To my mind it would be a betrayal of Borlaug’s legacy if we don’t allow today’s scientists to use the tools of biotechnology to advance global food security.

I hope all of you will join today in pledging that you will not let that happen.

© Mark Lynas
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